therestlessnest

where life's not empty, it's restless.

Archive for the tag “immigration”

Love in the time of Chaos

img_2891What is so fascinating, in this new and disorienting era in which we’re now living, are the connections that form amidst the chaos.

Last week, I was in Olympia for Alzheimer’s Advocacy Day. What a day of connections: of hearing and sharing stories; of witnessing the love that motivates families living with Alzheimer’s to go to the state capitol and talk to their representatives, even in this chaotic season when so many other causes cry out for their attention.

If you—or your husband, wife, mother, father, friend—are living with Alzheimer’s, you are accustomed to a baseline level of chaos. But when there’s a sense that chaos has been unleashed in the world on a larger scale, too, life can feel very—untethered. EndAlz

My mother’s Alzheimer’s disease began to rapidly accelerate in the summer and fall of 2001. She was quite unaware of the events of September 11. This may have been a blessing for her, but to us it was alarming. The country was in chaos. Our mother’s brain was in chaos. How to care for her, whether and where to move her, were the urgent questions that crowded our minds, even as we worried about war and terrorist threats. And then there was the daunting and dismaying challenge of explaining it all to our children—explaining not only what was happening in our country, but what was happening to their grandmother’s brain. Our hearts were breaking for her, and for the world, all at the same chaotic time.

img_2886“Let love reign,” is the symbolic message of the Irish Claddagh rings my husband Rustin and I wear as our wedding bands. On this fraught Valentine’s Day, let love indeed reign. It is our best chance at finding pathways through this time of chaos. Romantic love. Familial love. Friend-love. But most of all, the compassionate love we are suddenly seeing everywhere. While I was in Olympia, Rus was filming for the International Rescue Committee: emotional stories of refugee families reunited at SeaTac after the presidential immigration ban was stayed.

Let love reign and rain: in airports, town halls, capitols, courtrooms; let it reign wherever people are saying, “We are better than this. We are more loving than this. We can find ways to help families overwhelmed by dementia; we can welcome refugees overwhelmed by long, long journeys away from war and danger.”

Last week, I was lucky. I got to witness love reigning and raining everywhere: in the stories my husband told each evening about the refugees; in the stories I heard in Olympia. So now, in that spirit, I’m offering a Valentine’s Day gift. HBBfinalcoverEmail me your address (annhedreen at gmail.com) and I will mail you a free copy of my book, Her Beautiful Brain. Those many kinds of love are all there in my story, along with more than a few kinds of chaos. I’m also happy to send it to someone you know—just give me their address. I promise not to save or share anyone’s info.

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Restless Nest. Let love reign in this time of chaos.

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#Election2016: Countdown

         img_2763   It has never, ever felt so good to seal and stamp an envelope as it did after I filled out my ballot last week. Sure, I miss the old ritual of going to my local polling place, but sitting down and getting it done at home, good and early, felt great. Especially this year.

Of course, especially this year.

And now I’m going to tell you a few of the people I voted for.

I voted for the third graders I tutor in an afterschool program. One of them told me last week he was “so scared Donald Trump was going to win.” The others all chimed in. “We’re scared too!” “I hate Trump!” All of them are from refugee families; most come from Somalia. I wondered what they’ve been hearing at home. Can you imagine how horrifying it is to watch this election unfold, if you’re a refugee from anywhere—but especially from a Muslim country?

I also voted for another refugee: Henry Grundstrom, my great-grandfather, who, according to his naturalization papers, “foreswore his allegiance to the Czar of Russia” to become a United States citizen in 1898. Henry was from Finland, then under the Czar’s thumb. If he had stayed, he would have faced conscription into the Czar’s army. What would he have thought of allegations that Russian hackers could be trying to influence this election?

I voted for Viktor Warila, my other Finnish great-grandfather, who staked a homestead claim in Montana in 1910 and raised six children on the windswept bench lands between Billings and Yellowstone.

I voted for Lydia Warila, his wife, who traveled west from Ellis Island with her name and destination pinned to her coat, because she spoke not a word of English.

I voted for my Scottish forebears, who built houses in the Carnation Valley and on Queen Anne Hill, and for my Swedish great-grandfather, who left his Minnesota home at 18 and headed to Alaska for the Yukon Gold Rush.

I voted for my elegant grandmother, an orphan, who gave herself a whole new name when she was a teenager, because in this country you can do that. Because do-overs are in our DNA here. Unless you are Native American or your ancestors were brought here against their will, your people, too, came here because they wanted—or needed—to become something new. Just like my Somali students’ parents. And here’s the part that is apparently very hard for some Trump supporters to understand: in this country, we allow do-overs that don’t rob you of your core identity. You’re allowed to keep your religion, customs and language. My grandparents grew up speaking Finnish at home and attended Finnish Lutheran churches. Many of the Somali students in my neighborhood are trilingual: they speak English at school, Somali at home and learn Arabic in their religious classes.

I also cast my ballot in honor of my mother, who would have been SO thrilled to vote for the first woman ever to be a major-party candidate for president.

And I voted for my college: Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater too, which has been educating women since fifty years before we could legally vote for president, and whose founders wanted the college to prepare women for “great conflicts” and “vast reforms in social life.”

For Hillary Clinton, Wellesley was just the beginning of a lifetime of preparation for great conflicts and vast reforms. And for her, and for every woman in America, this election is much, much more than an opportunity for symbolism. It’s our chance to say: the great conflicts we face are real. Vast reform is needed. We need a president who knows these truths, and is ready to get to work.

That’s who I voted for. Let the countdown begin.

 

How Trump Made Me Love My Day Job

th-3       As I write, Donald Trump supporters are lining up outside a stadium about thirty miles north of here for a rally that begins many hours from now. This is confusing to me. Lining up for Trump? Who are they?

Yesterday, my husband and I met an immigrant family of nine and talked to them about how a local non-profit is helping them through their grief over the death of their baby girl. Last week, we visited an Adult Day Health Center that serves people who have dementia or have suffered brain trauma. We talked to a woman in her fifties whose face lit up with joy as she described how the time she spent at the center had given her the courage to go back to work after a stroke. The week before that, we interviewed a Seattle teacher who found an affordable apartment for herself and her son, with the help of a housing non-profit.

This is our day job: making short films for non-profits to help them raise money and spread the word about what they do. August is always a busy time for us, as our clients get ready for their fall events.

We feel very lucky that we get to do this work for a living. That we get to hear, and tell, stories about people helping people. Stories that debunk, over and over again, the American myth of rugged individualism; that show how much we Americans can do, when we pay attention to one another’s needs. When we are able to truly see each other, and recognize that we are all connected.

Which is why it is so hard for me to understand the Trump supporters who are standing in that line. I wonder who they are, and how it is they came to actually support this candidate who stands for slammed doors and high walls and connections based only on hate and fear.

The people I meet in my work are not the West Coast bubble-dwelling limousine liberals Trump loves to disparage. They are people who have rolled up their sleeves to actually find solutions to the toughest problems we face: homelessness, affordable housing, how to help vulnerable people weather trauma, loss, illness. How to make our schools better. How to protect our wild places for the next generation. If I dwell in a bubble, it is one in which compassion and inclusion are the norm. It is one in which people are allowed to be poor, or new to this country, or different in abilities, and dignified at the same time.

The interviews we do are my favorite part of the job. I love to listen to peoples’ stories. I love it when they surprise me, which they nearly always do. What’s much harder is what comes next: going back through those interviews, selecting the very best bits, and laying them out in an order that makes sense. It’s so important to me to get their stories right, especially during a year when slandering whole groups of people has become the Trumpian norm.

So I’m going to get back to work now. Thanks, Trump, for inspiring me to appreciate my day job even more. And I think we all know your rally is not going to make a difference in how our state votes. Because not very many of us live in your bubble. Thank God.

Here’s some inspiration to put on your calendar: A reading by writers who have experienced homelessness, September 12 at 7pm at the University Branch of the Seattle Public Library. Check out  Nicole Brodeur’s Seattle Times column about the Mary’s Place writers and their writing group leader, Julie Gardner.

 

 

 

Father Solstice

12294725_1023642207693534_3470832158015669034_n 2 I was in it for the Beaconettes. What’s not to love about a holiday choir decked in sky-high beehive hairdos festooned with strings of lights? So I braved the bone-chilling Seattle December rain and headed for the annual tree-lighting at our neighborhood’s new gathering spot, a mini-park called the Columbia City Gateway. My husband was waiting for me, hot chocolate in hand. Aahhh.

We tried to figure out where the tree was. Turns out it was a telephone pole. This would be a pole lighting. But that’s OK—it’s Columbia City, where even a pole lighting in a downpour can somehow still promise to be festive.

There were some mercifully short introductory remarks, and then the night’s celebrity guest was introduced: Father Christmas himself, or, as the announcer added, “Father Solstice, if you prefer.” And what a FatherSolsticemagnificent Father Christmas/Solstice he was: fur-crowned, green-robed, cascading white beard and hair.

I was kicking myself for not having added one more layer to my winter-rain getup and feeling anxious to see the Beaconettes before I crossed over into hypothermia. My husband saw me shivering and put his arms around me. Then Father Solstice stepped up to the microphone, wrapping us all in his gentle yet commanding presence: the kind of presence that long years of addressing such crowds can give a man, especially one with mythical tendencies.

I’m paraphrasing here, but this is what I remember of what Father Solstice said: “I won’t talk long, I promise. I know you’re wet and cold. But I just want to remind you about some refugees you might have heard about. Two thousand years ago, they were looking for a place to stay, because one of them was about to have a baby. Door after door was barred against them. And I’m bringing them up because this year, we’re more tempted than ever to bar our doors against the refugees of the world. More tempted than ever to act out of fear, instead of love.”

“Who remembers,” Father Solstice went on, “when Seattle was declared a Sanctuary City in the 1980s? Maybe it’s time to reclaim that vow.”

The soggy crowd was quiet.

“OK,” said Father S, snapping us back to the present. Let’s count down and light that pole!”

We all counted down, clapping and cheering when the telephone pole lit up. Then the Beaconettes stirred and glowed and we crowded in so we could hear them over the deluge as they belted out their trademark carols featuring rewritten lyrics about contemporary life in Seattle, which this year included riffs on marijuana, Amazon, Fitbits and Bertha the wayward tunnel-digger. They were hilarious, as always.

But it was Father Solstice who stayed with me, as we walked off into the dark.

Is it still possible to be a sanctuary city? What it technically means is that Seattle is a city where police officers are not allowed to ask about an individual’s immigration status. What “sanctuary city” also meant, in the 1980s, was a place where many churches and activists provided sanctuary for refugees fleeing violence in Central America and, later on, other turbulent places in the world.

Is it possible, in these times, not to offer sanctuary? In his Sunday speech from the Oval Office, President Obama called the terrorists of the Islamic State—which is neither reflective of more than a tiny, warped sliver of Islam, nor a state—“thugs and killers.” How can we not offer sanctuary when murderous thugs are driving waves of terrified people into exile? How can we be the ones who cry out, “no room at the inn?”

And yet: what kind of sanctuary are we, when our country is flooded with firearms, bedecked and bedazzled with them, to a degree that must make the violent thugs of the world quiver with envy? When our politicians shout, “yes, bar those doors!” even as they encourage the flow of guns from the factories and into the hands of everyone who wants one or two or two dozen, whether they’re terrorists, armed robbers, or duck hunters?

Turns out Father Christmas/Solstice is a long-time peace activist in Seattle named Bob Barnes. I had the honor of meeting him, and thanking him for what he said, after the pole-lighting; an event, I told him, that I won’t soon forget. Thanks, Beaconettes, and thank you, Bob. The holiday season in Seattle may be dark and sodden, but it has its bright moments. “Bright,” as in happy strings of lights on beehive hairdos and on one telephone pole. And “bright” as in: a man in a green cloak and furry crown, willing to shine a light right where we need it most.

In the mood for another seasonal tale? Here’s one I called “A Manger Story,” published this week on the Patheos Good Letters site. 

Radio news: After four years, The Restless Nest has retired from its weekly radio spot on KBCS. This will give me more time to work on some longer projects. But I’ll continue to post here at least a few times a month. 

 

Immigrant America

unnamedHer name was pinned to her coat, because she didn’t speak a word of English. But Lydia Westerback made it from Ellis Island to Hanna, Wyoming, where her future husband was waiting for her. He’d been waiting for nine years. It took that long for Lydia’s heart to heal after the death of her first fiancé, back in Finland. Nine years for her heart to stop hurting enough to see what Viktor Warila was offering her: not just love and marriage but a whole new world. She was 31. Her choice was stark: impoverished spinsterhood in Finland, under the rule of the Russian Czar? Or marriage, and America, with a friendly man whose letters she enjoyed but who she had not seen in nearly a decade?

Lydia and Viktor were my great-grandparents. Like all my forebears, they came here with little money and lots of hope. This might be your story too, or a part of your story. Whether it was nearly five centuries ago in Pilgrim New England, whether it was one or two centuries ago in the great immigrant waves that gave us Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus’ beautiful poem—you remember, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Whether it was 30 years ago or three years ago, we were all poor travelers at the table. Or as President Obama put it in his announcement last week of major executive action on immigration, “we know the heart of a stranger—we were strangers once too.”

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote beautifully this weekend on the same theme. Many others have, too. So my story, of Lydia and Viktor and their reunion at a Wyoming coal camp in 1899, is hardly unique—and that, of course, is exactly the point. Exactly why I’m giving thanks, this year, for President Obama’s action, because it is such an important reminder of who we are, as a nation. Why we exist. What we represent to the world. The new, jillion-dollar fence on our southern border is a shameful testament to who we are at our worst—selfish. Fearful. Ditto Congress’ inability to pass immigrant reform legislation. But the president’s executive order, imperfect though it is, is an urgently needed course correction back towards what Lazarus’s poem invoked us to be, when she imagined the Statue of Liberty saying to the world: “Send these homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The golden door of which she wrote led, of course, not to treasure but to backbreaking work. Just as it still does. Nothing is more wildly off the mark than recent characterizations of immigrants, legal or illegal, as “takers.” My great-grandfather was a coal miner. My great-grandmother ran a small boarding house. Then, with six young children to support, they farmed a homestead claim near Red Lodge, Montana.

I thought of them—and of Lydia’s long train trip across the West to meet her future husband—when my husband and I watched a haunting new documentary called Who is Dayani Cristal, produced by actor Gael Garcia Bernal, perhaps best known here for playing Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. Bernal also narrates and appears on-screen in short re-enactments which help tell the story of one Honduran immigrant whose body was found in the Sonoran desert. Watch it, if you can: it’s available online. It will make you thankful for how we as a nation took a step last week back towards everything the Statue of Liberty stands for. “A mighty woman with a torch,” Lazarus called her: “and her name? Mother of Exiles.”

HBBfinalcoverBuy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.

 Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available too.

Immigrant Nations

By the time you hear this, I’ll be in one of the world’s great immigrant nations: France. One in five people in France were either born in another country, or their parents were.

In the United States, we count differently: “foreign-born” does not include children born here to immigrant parents, who are granted US citizenship at birth.

So it’s hard to make a direct comparison. But the US Census says 12.7% of us are foreign-born, as of 2010, which is close to where we were 100 years ago, when immigration was at its peak.

And yet former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had this to say in a recent speech: “I don’t know when immigrants became the enemy.”  She said one of the greatest disappointments of her career was the Bush administration’s failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.

I know there’s a lot of anti-immigrant backlash in France, too, and I’m sure I’ll hear more about it on my trip. But it makes me sad to think that our country’s self-image of open arms and opportunity, of the Statue of Liberty lighting the way for newcomers to our shores, has slipped so far that effective immigration reform now seems further away than ever.

Condi Rice went on to say our immigrant culture is, quote, “at the core of our strength.” She’s right.  And we forget, at our peril, that nearly all of us have immigrant roots.

After France, I’m headed for the first time in my life to the country my own ancestors came from: Finland.

I’ll be retracing the steps of my great-grandmother, who traveled from Finland to Wyoming in 1899. Her name and destination were pinned to her coat because she didn’t speak a word of English.

When I stumbled across Iceland Air’s unbeatable deal, my first impulse was to close that window, fast. But Finland haunts me.  My great-grandmother haunts  me.

By the time she and her husband staked a homestead claim in Montana in 1910, they were both 40. But they’d bought into the optimism of the West. They were a new generation of settlers, wholly unlike the early Oregon trailers. They were Americans now, though they spoke Finnish at home and taught it to their six children.

I don’t know what I expect to find in Finland, so poor when my ancestors left; now one of the most affluent, progressive countries in the world.  Remember that 2010 Gallup Happiness poll? Finland came in second, after Denmark.  For the record, the US was 14th and France was 44th, but maybe that’s because the French just don’t like to admit to anything as bland as satisfaction.

In Finland, I’ll do what Americans do: hunt up distant relatives; find the towns whose names I’ve heard all my life: Kaustinen, Raavi, Oolu. Call it a pilgrimage; call it a search for the prequel to a story I’m still writing: my own.  Call it a shout out to immigration.  I don’t always find myself agreeing with Condi Rice. But  I’m with her on this one.

Hello, Ancestors

     Out of a yellow envelope in a box marked “Ann’s office” they fell: four people in funny felt hats, staring at me from an 8 by 10, black-and-white photo. Three young men and one young woman. If they took off those four-cornered caps, the men would fit right in at the Comet Tavern on Capitol Hill, with their scruffy goatees and mustaches.

     When you move, you don’t just let go of stuff you don’t need, you find stuff you forgot you need. Five years ago, I saw this photo in the archive of a local history museum. Undated, un-located, it was labeled simply “Finnish Immigrants.” I was so taken by it I bought a print. But it languished, forgotten in an envelope, until now.

     My husband found a frame. Now it’s on my desk. I’ve taken to calling it “my ancestors.”

     They could be: they’re Finnish immigrants, arriving somewhere, some dreary boardwalk of a train station, in the West. Their leggings and belted jackets and jaunty headware mark them: fresh arrivals. Their expressions are not fearful, but expectant: ready for a new life that will start somewhere out beyond where the boardwalk ends. The woman, whose hat is a knit helmet of the type favored by snowboarders, is holding a few paper-wrapped parcels: food for the journey? Letters of introduction?

     My own great-grandmother traveled alone across the country with her name and destination—Hanna, Wyoming, where my great-grandfather was waiting to marry her–pinned to her coat.

     I’m reminded of her, and of my could-be ancestors in the photo, when I see the African immigrant women in our new neighborhood, crossing the park outside our window with their children, burkas flying behind them as they hurry to the school bus stop. They too are expectant. They know: every day, when their children step on that bus, they are entering new worlds of opportunity.

     Until recently, we accepted the notion that all children living in America, regardless of where they or their parents were born, were entitled to a free public education. Now we have states like Alabama and Arizona where that may no longer be a given. And here in Washington, we have lawmakers, desperate to find places to cut the budget, talking about across-the-board cuts in education. Fewer school days is the latest idea.

     Last week, four hundred students from Seattle’s Garfield High School marched downtown to protest the cuts. It made my kids proud of their alma mater. Me too.

     One of the few things I have that was my great-grandmother’s is a copy book in which, as a little girl, she practiced her penmanship. Page after page of letters and words, all in inscrutable Finnish. Either she chose to bring it with her to America, or someone gave it to my grandmother when she visited Finland. Either way, it was saved. It was valued.

     Immigrants have always understood that education is what matters most. And since, with the exception of Native Americans, we are all immigrants, it’s shocking we would forget that. My great-grandmother never mastered English. But her daughter, my grandmother, went to college for a year and taught in a one-room school in Montana. Maybe some of her students were newbies like the foursome in my photo.

     Her mother must have been so proud. Eighty years later, I’m so proud.

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